Food companies producing illegitimate novel foods made from insects or algae face varying degrees of fines depending on the member state, EUobserver discovered through an FOI request.

The website found that niche food businesses selling insect products in the Netherlands were hit with a €525 fine whereas the punishment for the same crime in Slovakia carries a heavier penalty of €1,000, which could increase to up to €500,000.

The information also discovered that member states did not inform the commission of the details of their fines.

The EU requires companies wishing to sell novel foods to review the list of authorised products. The novel food category generally covers foods not widely consumed before 15 May 1997.

According to the European Commission, novel food items can be ‘newly developed, innovative food, food produced using new technologies and production process’ or food that has not been traditionally eaten in Europe – products made from insects, fungi, algae and micro-organisms fit this category.

The European Commission released a Q&A on novel foods on 3 January 2018. When asked whether insects were included in the category, the document clarified: “Yes, in the EU, insects fall within the definition of novel food as food ingredients isolated from animals. Parts of insects (such as legs, wings, head, etc.), as well as whole insects, fall within this definition.”

As the environmental impact of the traditional meat industry becomes more well-known, some food companies have experimented with alternative proteins.

The authorised list first requires scientific proof conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that the product exhibits no safety risk.

The EU reformulated policy on the regulation of novel foods, which came into force on 1 January 2018 required European nations to impose fines for violating the legislation.

According to standard clause 42 in the EU law: “The Member States should lay down the rules on penalties applicable to infringements of the provisions of this Regulation and should take all measures necessary to ensure that they are implemented. The penalties provided for must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.”

The lack of clarity on the details of penalties has resulted in disunity among member states.

Inconsistent legal systems

Austrian law requires that penalty of €50,000 or €100,000 for repeat offenders. Meanwhile, In Estonia, maximum fines of €3,200 have been recorded. Latvian law makes specific mention to a €700 infringement penalty.

In other member states, fines continue to differ. Hungary has a minimum penalty of €32 and a maximum of €1.6m but only if 10% of the company’s net exceeds this sum.

Malta’s penalty is €2,329 (€4,658 for a repeat offence); the Netherlands €525 for small businesses (less than 50 employees) and €1,050 for larger companies.  Spain has a distinction between small infringements (€5,000) and more serious offences (up to €20,000).

This divergence in policy makes it difficult for multinational food companies, which could theoretically be issued with many different fines.

EUobserver’s request for the information prompted the commission to email relevant national bodies to inform it of any penalties.  Only then did government bodies respond to the law, raising the question of whether they would have actually informed the commission without the demand.